Which Conferences Will Gain Bragging Rights From 2018's Bowl Season?
Only four teams still have a chance at a national title, but there will be plenty on the line before the semifinal games kick off on Dec. 29. The unique battles that make up the lower-profile games are often the most compelling part of bowl season, as conferences put bragging rights on the line with head-to-head matchups between teams of comparable standing within their leagues. The SEC’s superiority complex is tested, while that year’s weakest Power 5 conference has a chance to win back some national respect.
So which Power 5 conferences are set up to end 2018 on a high, and which run the risk of being exposed? Here’s our breakdown of the outlook for each.
Most Likely to Succeed
SEC: Having the national title favorite certainly helps matters, providing a strong lead horse even if the rest of the conference falters. But it would be a surprise if the SEC’s 11 bowl participants don’t manage to finish above .500.
After playing one of the best games of the year in the conference championship, Georgia and Alabama enter their respective New Year’s Six bowls against the Big 12’s best as double-digit favorites. Missouri should be just fine against the slight Oklahoma State front in the Liberty Bowl, and Baylor may struggle to slow down Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl, which will be Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s final game. Outside of the SEC–Big 12 duels, expect Mississippi State to shut down Iowa. The Bulldogs’ front is ferocious, and the athleticism of Nick Fitzgerald should give the Hawkeyes fits.
There are some difficult matchups, however, for college football’s premier conference. LSU will have its hands full against a highly-motivated UCF squad in the Fiesta Bowl (will we see back-to-back national championships?) and Penn State will likely be favored over Kentucky despite the individual brilliance of running back Benny Snell Jr. Auburn better be careful against speedster Rondale Moore and Purdue, too. Double-digit wins is unlikely, but the SEC should like its chances in most of its bowl slate.
Predicted Record: 8–3
Big Ten: In terms of protecting its final bowl record, the Big Ten caught a break in missing out on the playoff and now gets its best team (Ohio State) in its best contracted bowl (the Rose). The Buckeyes and their archrivals should take care of business against two teams in Washington and Florida that don’t have the offensive consistency to hang with the Big Ten’s best.
The Big Ten has more coin flip games than the SEC. Both Wisconsin and Miami have been disappointments, but in a tossup Pinstripe Bowl, Jonathan Taylor could tilt the scales toward the Badgers as the best player on the field. Jeff Brohm staying at Purdue should fire up the aforementioned Boilermakers, a sharp contrast to the bad vibes surrounding Auburn. Barring a few upsets, the Big Ten will fare well in postseason play.
Predicted Record: 6–3
Most Likely to Fail
Pac-12: This feels like piling on for a conference that went 1–7 in bowls last year, but there’s not much hope for a dominant showing from the Pac-12. At the top, Washington should be a heavy underdog against the Buckeyes’ explosive offense. The rest of the bowl games are fairly nondescript but feature several potential traps.
Arizona State could struggle to find the end zone without dynamic wideout N’Keal Harry, who left the team early to prepare for the NFL draft, and its Las Vegas Bowl opponent Fresno State is riding high after an impressive victory over Boise State to take the Mountain West title. TCU has had a subpar season, but Gary Patterson’s defense will pose a challenge for Cal’s middling offense, which averages 22.8 points per game. The best game featuring the Pac-12 is the Alamo Bowl, pitting Iowa State vs. Washington State. The two teams have contrasting styles with Mike Leach’s Air Raid and the Cyclones’ rugged rushing attack behind David Montgomery. Expect a high-scoring affair in San Antonio.
The Pac-12’s safest bet is Oregon in the RedBox Bowl. Michigan State averaged just 19.8 points per game in the regular season, and a putrid 8.7 in its final three games. Yet even with a potential Oregon route, it won’t be enough to give the Pac-12 a winning bowl record.
Predicted Record: 3–4
Big 12: The wins must come early if the Big 12 wants to have a successful bowl season, because they will be tough to come by once the New Year’s Six bowls get going. Oklahoma State’s chances against Missouri were further dented after Cowboys running back Justice Hill announced he will sit out the Liberty Bowl.
We noted TCU’s advantage on Cal above. West Virginia should snag a victory over Syracuse, as Will Grier and the Mountaineers explosive receivers will likely be able to exploit a shaky Orange secondary. The experience gap in the Texas Bowl between a young Baylor roster and an experienced Vanderbilt team might be made up by the Bears’ fan turnout in Houston. Add in Iowa State’s battle with Washington State, and the Big 12 has a string of intriguing close matchups.
Predicted Record: 2–5
ACC: Don’t discount the ACC’s chances of providing the national champion. Clemson was dominant on both sides of the ball this season and could very well hand Nick Saban his second title-game loss in the last three seasons. The rest of the conference, though, will struggle.
Wake Forest and Virginia Tech face uphill battles against AAC teams after scraping their way to 6–6. Darrell Henderson can run all over the Demon Deacons’ unimposing front, while Cincinnati’s stingy defense should limit the Hokies. Don’t expect Georgia Tech to go quietly in Paul Johnson’s final game—the triple option has wreaked havoc on opponents in the past two postseasons—but Minnesota’s defense has improved since a midseason coordinator switch. There are no easy wins for the ACC this bowl season, and a slate of unfavorable matchups could make for a sour conclusion to the year.
Predicted Record: 3–8